BIG BANG BIG BOOM – the new wall-painted animation by BLU

Artist Blu takes on evolution and its consequences.

BIG BANG BIG BOOM – the new wall-painted animation by BLU

Artist Blu takes on evolution and its consequences.

Oscar Grant, order
a young black man, information pills
was detained on the BART platform. White police officer, approved
Johannes Mehserle, working the 2009 New Year’s Eve shift had responded to a call of reputed fisticuffs on the public subway. The cement flooring of Fruitvale Bart, a historically Latino neighborhood, was the scene of a White on Black racially charged incident. Mehserle was “detaining” Grant by sitting on top of his back, when in an inexplicable act Mehserle drew his firearm and fired a shot into Grant’s back.

“You shot me,” Grant cried, his last public words before he died seven hours later at Highland Hospital, a public hospital in East Oakland known for taking in violent crime victims.

Filmed by onlookers with camera phones the event created a media meme for the residents of the Bay Area. The incident would have passed by largely unnoticed, like the recent murder of Gary King Jr., if the actions of Mehserle had not been taped. The video footage shed light not only on the corruption of the police but also on daily inner-city repression. What was apparent in the video is the public secret of the lives of the people in the working class neighborhoods of Oakland (or any city); racial profiling, heavy handed action by the police, and the blasé attitude of public officials for the lower classes.
During the days following Grants death protests of various stripes occurred, the highlight was a march of 250 people through downtown Oakland that turned into a riot causing $200,000 worth of damage. Journalists and city officials denounced the rioters as outside agitators, although the majority of participants were locals. The events of Oscar Grant’s demise galvanized people to express their anger over the police and the composition of the city environment.

Alameda County district attorney, Tom Orloff, decided to charge the former officer with murder. Mehserle pled not guilty and with the funds from a police union fundraiser was able to post bail. Along with bail, Mehserle’s defense was paid for by a statewide fund for police officers. Mehserle’s retained lawyer Michael Rains had a long history of defending police caught in untenable positions. Rains had previously defended a member of the Oakland Rider’s, the Riders were a group of rogue local cops whom were involved in the largest legal settlement in Oakland history. The plaintiffs shared 10.5 million dollars in their settlement. Rains also defended, successfully, the Corcoran 8, prison guards whom set up fights between prisoners for entertainment.

Mehserle claimed that he was reaching for his Taser, instead of his sidearm when he shot Grant. Modern Tasers weigh half as much as the standard police issued officer deployed guns and Mehserle wore his Taser on the opposite side of his body as his gun. It has also been claimed that the prostrate Grant, with officer Pirone’s knee on his head, may have been reaching for a gun in his waistband. No weapon was found on Grant’s corpse.

Rains argued successfully to move the trial from Alameda County to L.A. County where there would be an impartial jury. Historically juries have acquitted police officers in brutality cases. The jury was composed of eight women and four men, with seven being white, four being Hispanic and one being Asian. The jury underwent several changes throughout the deliberation process with the verdict held up by one juror who left their position to go on vacation, and another becoming ill. The deliberations were restarted twice due to these incidents but a verdict was reached swiftly on Thursday July 8, 2010. The jury had not deliberated together a full day.

The days preceding the verdict announcement were filled of media denunciations of potential violence. The East Bay Express, a local free weekly, covered their issue on 7 July 2010 with a picture of Grant. “Be Cool” the caption said, a brief paragraph warned protesters to not follow in Mehserle’s footsteps by losing their “cool” and that “Violence is not justice.”

Mayor Ron Dellums joined the spectacle in a public message announced a week before the verdict was given. Dellums in an attempt to recuperate the protests before they had started said; “We understand that the community is grieving, we are in this together.” Along with posting the message on the city website, Dellums suggested residents park their cars in secure locations and remove newspaper racks and other sidewalk signs from the street. The City of Oakland also listed a series of places where angered residents could go to express their emotions. These safe spaces were attempted safety valves on the tense pressure of an explosive situation. The City also sent letters out to business owners in downtown Oakland encouraging preparation and safety in the coming days, leading to boarded up store fronts starting two weeks before the verdict was released. Oakland’s downtown in the two weeks prior to the Mehserle verdict was to step into a war zone as downtown Oakland began to look like a vision of despair in preparation for the potential riots that would occur, creating a feeling of impending doom on the city streets. The OPD increased patrols in East and West Oakland. The streets, normally busy were nearly empty for the days before the verdict.

Many downtown non-profits were eager to join in the protection of capitalist interests as evident by Nicole Lee of the Urban Peace Movement’s widely spread email. Addressing “Friends and Allies,” Lee desired to “create organized events or avenues for young people and community members to express their frustrations with the system in constructive and peaceful ways.” She found it important to “inoculate” people in preparation for the verdict in order so that when the verdict did come out “outside agitators” wouldn’t so easily incite the crowd. Lee was part of an umbrella group (including the Ella Baker Center, and Oakland Rising,) of non-profits that sought to preemptively recuperate the protests of the verdict.

The jury found Mehserle guilty of involuntary manslaughter and not guilty to second degree murder along with not guilty to voluntary manslaughter. Involuntary manslaughter is defined as the unlawful killing of a person without malice. It is separated from voluntary manslaughter by its emphasis on lack of intention. The jury also found Mehserle eligible for gun enhancement charges which may increase his prison sentence by ten years, make him ineligible for probation, and demand he serve 85 percent of sentence.

Historic in its charging of an on-duty officer with a murder, the verdict announcement had an immediate response by a horde of journalists immediately clustering after the airing in Downtown Oakland on July
8th. The spectacular quality of the atmosphere was made clear by local Bay area eccentric Frank Chu’s presence. Chu, a media hungry wingnut carries with him a large picket sign whose black background is covered over by an incomprehensible message attacking the “12 Galaxies.”

On Broadway, between the 12th Street and 14th Street, was the site of a largely peaceful protest. The Oakland Police Department (OPD) whose main building is located further south on Broadway made their presence immediately known by cordoning off the protest area on the south with a line of officers in riot uniforms on 12th Street. The peaceful protest was accompanied by a predictable speak out on the corner of 14th and Broadway that was largely ignored by the participants, instead people mingled. As the night wore on the police visibly blockaded the area setting ranks of officers on the east and west side of Broadway on Franklin (to the east) and Clay (to the west).

By 8pm the police had squared off the protest with a row of officers preventing free movement in all directions. At approximately the same time Footlocker, a popular chain shoe store, located on the corner of 14th and Broadway was looted by protesters within the cordoned off area. People smashed in the windows and stole shoes leaving the empty boxes of their new found treasures littered on the grounds of the downtown business area.
At 8:30pm the protest was declared an unlawful assembly. The police moved northward from their south position herding the protesters towards the north most blockade of officers. Night had fallen and the protesters flanking the northern cops, outside of the cordoned off square block were becoming increasingly agitated. A police officer’s vehicle was attacked and the formation of officers began to move northward on Broadway. The flanking protesters, approximately 200 in number, moved in pace northward with the police. Moving a half block up the street the protesters began to loot, smash, and spray graffiti in the uncontrolled space. As the police moved forward so did the protesters, keeping time with the OPD. When enough space was given between the protesters and the officers, the former would again engage in criminal activity.

A small “grill” shop, Gold Teeth Master, had its store front demolished and was broken into. A swarm of African American youth flocked inside the store for their grills and looted the store completely.

The looting took the capitalist promise of instant gratification to heart. Yet via purchasing, capitalist society keeps its stock of fabricated needs held out for those who can afford its prices; looting bypasses the erroneousness of purchasing commodities and reveals the schizophrenia of a society where the material goods for achieving one’s happiness are ever present but held at bay by the social relations of capital. The looting was finally a chance for the people to get the material goods they wanted and the price was right, a 100% sale while goods lasted.

Rioting, which was composed of small scale looting, and window smashing with graffiti, on a much larger scale, continued north on Broadway to West Grand. Businesses were attacked seemingly at random with a handful of shops targeted specifically; banks, jewelry shops, and bars. A popular downtown Sake bar had its windows smashed in and its on window display supply of sake was looted. The graffiti messages ranged from simple tags to anti-cop sentiments (fuck the OPD) to apolitical messages (Say no to work, yes to looting!).

On July 9th the morning after the riots, the media was quick to denounce the damage to the downtown area as done by outside agitators. Mayor Ron Dellums congratulated the police’s effectiveness and ability to control the crowd. Both the media and Dellums repeatedly stated that the arrestees of the events were made of people largely outside of Oakland and thus were outside agitators. There has been talk to civil suits against the 78 “rioters” that got caught hoping to make an example out of them and to recoup the costs of the police preparation, extra resources and overtime pay. The cost of policing the events has the potential to be more costly than the damages.

The argument of outside agitators being the instigators for the evening’s property destruction is an appealing and easy answer for the media and government spectacle, yet it ignores the dimensions of the protest. Grant, a Hayward resident, was on a Bay Area public transit rail in Fruitvale when he was murdered. The actions of the police concern not only the residents of Oakland, where the murder took place, but also anyone that uses Bay Area public transit in general. The latter group extends to people throughout California. Furthermore police actions against citizens concern everyone enmeshed in policed spaces.

Accusing the protesters as being outside agitators is false to the same degree that it is true. While the Bay area is a fluid region without specific boundaries, thus inviting a large population to the protest—Oakland is a central place not only of commerce but also of inner city repression—the outside agitators are correctly labeled as such for being against the prevailing bourgeois public sphere
The composition of the peaceful protests was diverse in age, gender, and ethnicity representing the diversity of Oakland and the Bay Area. The rioters were mainly inner- city youth, shown not only by their targets, Gold Teeth Masters, but also by photographs. Constant reference is made to anarchists as the main antagonists of the evening but it is clear from viewing the photos that they were a minority showing that the media accusation of protesters being outside agitators is unfounded.

Following the rioting in Oakland public unrest continued the next weekend. A Latino man in East Oakland was shot by five cops composed of OPD and BART officers, a white man in bullet proof armor opened fire on California Highway Patrol, and a sniper shot at OPD officers in west Oakland. Roughly ten percent of OPD’s force was laid off due to budgetary cuts, reducing the number of officers by eighty and adding to the mounting tension in Oakland. The OPD publically announced that they would no longer respond to calls in person to a variety of crimes including: grand theft auto, vandalism, vehicle collision and burglary.

Monday, July 20th, offered a short reprieve for the OPD when a rally was held in Walnut Creek, an affluent predominately white suburb north of Oakland. A crowd of 50 gathered to advocate for Mehserle, while a corresponding batch of 150 came to support Grant. The rally was held in Walnut Creek for its socio-economic role in the bay, in theory lending more support for Mehserle than the ethnically mixed working class area of Oakland would. The rally was quiet in terms of violence but the heat of Oakland was apparent in the words and numbers of Grant supporters.

Prepared for a war that never happened

The storm never landed. The rioting that occurred on the night of the verdict was small and isolated losing steam after only a few hours.
City governments increasingly view their role in society through the paradigm of risk-management. Each aspect of governance is framed through the identification and amelioration of risk. This is clearly evident in policing but finds its way to other area of government as well (Budgets, City Planning, etc). Carefully drawn plans were made for various departments and coordination occurred between various area police departments, country sheriffs and other law enforcement agencies. Even the National Guard was on standby. The role of city security is played not only by the police but by “community institutions,” such as Nicole Lee’s Urban Peace Movement.

The temporary re-organization of downtown life reflected the fear that both City Hall and local media fed to the public. There was no hard evidence that something catastrophic was likely to occur. The City’s previous experience with rioting the year prior was limited and inconsequential.

This moral panic has profound class content; it represents the fear of the bourgeoisie that future generations of workers will not accept their place in commodity society. By instilling a series of moral panics, increasingly emphasizing the nefarious consequences of urban life, the bourgeois seek to strengthen their hold on the public sphere by limiting working class access, and delimiting working class action of and on the street. In other words this is rhetoric allows those in power to define the streets as its own, delineating the permissible uses of public space, and castigating all resistance to the expansion of the capitalist urban order.1

The big lie that the city was ready to destroy itself created a palpable sense of panic. This doesn’t mean that the city wouldn’t destroy itself given the long history of police brutality and the number of disaffected youth. Disaster preparedness is a tacit recognition of urban warfare fantasy that COULD be unleashed had a not guilty verdict been given. Anticipation of disaster was part of a mutual compulsion to action; the police preparation guaranteed a response from Oakland’s residents.

The events have shown what is already publicly known—Oakland is viewed as violent city with a soft infrastructure that responds more to the potential of disaster than its actuality. Daily life has returned to its regularity and tomorrow, like today, will be business as usual.

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1-Moral panics have historical precedent as seen from Chris Ealham’s Anarchism and the City [pages 11-15]